Helsinki, Finland

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of Finland  , Southern Finland,
Saturday, April 14, 2007

The massive ferries that regularly make the three hour crossing between Helsinki and Tallinn are favorite booze cruises for Finns, but on Friday morning going to Helsinki I was heading against the flow.  The boat actually reminded me of a floating version of an American Indian casino, full of overweight chain-smokers dividing their time between the slot machines and the buffet.  I was hoping for a true Scandinavian style breakfast buffet with salmon, herring, various smoked fishes, dark bread, porridge with berries, and interesting cold cuts. The reality, though, was just a lot of porky, sausagy, potatoey goo that could have as easily been served in an Iowa truckstop as a Finnish ferry.

My strongest memories of Finland were of how bizarrely expensive everything was, but since I was last here for two days in 1991 Finland went through a deep recession, joined the EU, and adopted the Euro.  This all would suggest the prices of things would tend to converge somewhat to the European norm, but economic reality doesn't always conform to theory - it's still really expensive.  In most international comparisons Finland usually ranks as the world's least corrupt country, but I keep feeling like I'm getting ripped off, not because I'm being deceived but because everything costs so much.  For example, because of some technical glitch in what's supposed to be the world's most technologically-advanced country, my North American bank and credit cards weren't working the day I arrived. Exchanging some dollars for Euros would normally not be an issue, but I found all banks and exchange offices charging a 5 to 8 Euro "commission" on top of giving a rather poor exchange rate.

Once I got over my initial financial trauma and my credit and bank cards started working again, Helsinki really began to grow on me.  There's nothing gothic or renaissance or baroque here, just a rather small neoclassical ensemble around Senate Square and a few architecturally significant buildings in a sea of modernity.  Most of the nineteenth and twentieth century buildings are very attractive, though.  Maybe this is how modern cities should all strive to be - clean, not overly big or brash, but artistically avant-garde and filled with a sophisticated, fashion-conscious citizenry, each cultivating his or her own personal style.

Cultivating one's own personal style definitely seems to be the highest goal of a large number of young Finns based on the large number trying to make themselves look frightening in imitation of their favorite Finnish monster rockers - tattoos, studs, leather clothes, blond hair dyed black or magenta or shaved selectively into unique designs.  I was tempted to ask some if I could take their pictures but was afraid they'd beat me up.

The menus at a few Lapp and Finnish restaurants look very interesting, but considering the astronomical price of sit-down meals in Finland the closest I get to sampling Finnish cuisine is reindeer kebabs and a salted salmon and caviar sandwich from a stand at the central market.  That's OK, though, a few days of eating yogurt and fruit from the grocery store will do me good.

Whenever I'm in a capital city I like to go to the art museum that focus on the nation's art, since I think you can learn a lot about a country's social history from its art, particularly that from the 19th century eras of realism and impressionism.  In Helsinki that collection is in a museum named the Athenaeum.  In many countries the paintings of the period include many scenes of happy peasant life, lively dances, sunny scenery or Biedermeier era domestic bliss. The Finnish art of the era all seems to be of painful experiences, paintings with titles like "The Child's Funeral" and "Heading Home From Church" (on skis at dusk in an arcticlike landscape).  This was not a fun place to be a century and half ago.  How things change, though.  If ever I've seen a country where people appear to live without want it's Finland. 

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